Thursday, July 07, 2011

Conquering the infamous Col du Tourmalet

 "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!'

So said Octave Lapiz when he won the Tour de France in 1910 after staggering up the Tourmalet.

It's a ridiculously hard climb as, at 2115m, it's the highest road in the central Pyrenees and the most famous mountain in the history of "Le Tour".

So it's hard to explain why, last Saturday, I set off from Lourdes on my tatty old mountain bike to tackle this monster.  Accompanied by a group of friends who had cycled with me down from Bordeaux I had no idea what was in store.

The previous night we had all talked about the need to be mentally strong .  One of our party asked how much - on a scale of 1 to 10 - we "wanted it".

My companions all said 10 without hesitation but I gave it a half-hearted 6.  The truth is that I'd achieved my objective already (getting half fit and reaching the Pyrenees in the first place).

We left Lourdes along a stupidly pretty cycle track with the mountains in the distance.  By the time we reached the foot of the Tourmalet in Luz St Sauveur I was already sweating hard. 

Just the 19km's to go then at an average slope of 7.5%.

Two of our party shot off - these were the serious cyclists on proper road bikes who wanted to beat the clock.

This left Paddy and I.  We have been friends since meeting up at Portsmouth Poly in 1981 and he's the strongest guy I know - both physically & mentally.

My old bike is a disgrace, but his is worse.  Better still he was dressed for a swift jaunt along the side of the river Charente.  Every cyclist we saw (and there were plenty of them) was slim, wiry and dressed head to toe in Lycra, with matching helmets, gloves and backpacks stuffed with energy bars.

Paddy was in his football shorts and tee shirt (which he took off halfway up declaring the 33 degree heat as "getting warm") - his pockets would have carried some kind of sustenance if they hadn't had holes in them.

I surely would have quit halfway up but for the fact that he'd cycle ahead for a few minutes then turn and come back down the mountain for a chat and some encouraging words.

Three quarters of the way up and I'd run out of water and steam was coming from my ears.  I collapsed in the shade of a tree and confirmed that I was ready to die. 

"Don't be stupid" said Paddy and he cycled off to fill up my water bottle from a mountain stream, what's more he was whistling when he came back....damn him.

Three km's from the top and Chris arrived with the back up car to say that the others had reached the top and were cheering us on.  How can you quit when you have friends like this?

So.... I picked up my broken, 6'2", fifteen stone, body and re-mounted my bike. 

"Oh yeah" chortled Chris "They told me to tell you that it gets steeper at the end, up to 10.2% for the last 500 metres".


The rest is a blur....pretty much the only thing I remember is the photographer at the top of the mountain who almost fell off the edge when he clocked Paddy coming up, still whistling, in third gear and looking for the world as if he could do it again without breaking sweat.

There's a big monument at the top and there were a hundred or so people milling around.  A few came over to examine our decrepit old bikes and my father-in-law (who has been training me for the last year) shed a discrete tear or two, while simultaneously trying to revive me.

It was, without doubt, the biggest achievement of my life.  My thanks go to David Battersby, Chris Stacey, Steve Heywood-Jones and Paddy McMahon - it was an honour to share this moment with you.

“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”


Andy said...

That's a terrific tale Graham. Well done to you and the boys!

Steve said...

Well done Graham. Hope you have recovered by now.

tmayhew said...

That is hysterical! Love the descriptives. If I had been on my bike whilst reading I would've fallen off laughing. But well done getting up there, what an achievement!